Fatherly Advice by Rabbi Ezra Wiener


In Parashat VaYigash, Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers. The Pasuk states, “VaYomer Yosef El Echav, ‘Ani Yosef; HaOd Avi Chai?’ VeLo Yachlu La'anot Oto Ki Nivhalu MiPanav,” “Yosef said to his brothers, ‘I am Yosef. Does my father still live?’ And they could not answer him because they were frightened by his presence” (BeReishit 45:3). Several commentators have been puzzled that Yosef inquires about his father's well-being immediately after revealing his identity to his brothers. Yosef recently asked about his father at the end of Parashat MiKeitz, so why is he asking again? In addition, at first glance, such an inquiry is not the logical literary succession. After saying “I am Yosef,” asking about Yaakov does not seem to flow.

A well-known interpretation of this Pasuk is discussed in the Malbim and the Beit HaLevi. These commentators posit that Yosef's question is a rebuke and criticism. He is really saying, “Did you even consider my father's feelings, his suffering and emotional turmoil, when you decided to sell me? Could my father possibly still be alive after all that you put him through? Where was your compassion?”

Although this is not the simple understanding, and in other contexts, the question “Does my father still live” has different meanings, the Gemara in Chullin (4b) seems to follow this approach. It reads: “Rabi Elazar, when he came to the [following] verse, wept: ‘And they could not answer him because they were frightened by his presence.’ Now if the rebuke of flesh and blood be such, how much more so the rebuke of the Holy One, Blessed Be He!” The difficulty with Rabi Elazar's statement is obvious: where lies the rebuke in the Pasuk? After all, Yosef mentions nothing yet of the sale to Egypt. Apparently, Rabbi Elazar understands that "Does my father still live?" is indeed an admonition.


Rashi writes that the brothers were "frightened by his presence" because of the embarrassment. Apparently, no formal rebuke was required. Yosef's brothers were overwhelmed with shame and guilt by the mere fact that they were standing in front of Yosef. Perhaps this is the intention of Rabi Elazar. If when standing in front of Yosef they were confounded due to embarrassment without Yosef even saying any actual words of rebuke, how much more so when we stand before the Creator of the world? He won't need to say anything. We will be overwhelmed with shame by our shortcomings, the spiritual potential that we never achieved.

This interpretation, though, is homiletical. What is the simple understanding? Why does "Does my father still live?" follow "I am Yosef"?

When we examine the character of Yosef, both in the text and Midrashim, we see an individual who had a very close relationship with his father. He was Yaakov’s favorite child, he received the special coat, he learned with his father, and he even has the facial features of his father. According to the Midrash, it was his father's image that kept him from sin in Potifar's house and perhaps his entire sojourn in Egypt.

When Yosef has his brothers detained, Yehudah constantly speaks of “Avi,” “my father.” Yosef cannot contain himself. He hears that Yaakov is Yehudah's father, not his, and starts to cry.

When Yosef reveals himself, the first thing that he wants to do is acknowledge that Yaakov is his father. He is saying, "I have been asking you about your father, but he is really my father too."
Yosef does not say “Avinu,” our father, but rather “Avi,” my father, the father with whom I have had such a close relationship.

If we try to apply this to our relationship with Hashem, we can glean the following idea: How often do different sects of Jews claim that God is “Avi,” “my father,” implying that only they have it right? To the other Jew who is standing before them, it seems as though he is left out and has no connection to God. Every Jew can have a strong connection because God is our father and we are all his beloved children.

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